LOUISVILLE, KY — A small, tilted placard interrupts the blur of mailboxes along a winding, wooded stretch of highway in this midsize southern city. “Donna’s Daycare,” it reads in black, hand-painted letters on white plywood, though day care is the least of what Donna Allen does. The neighborhood is Fairdale, a short drive and world apart from the pricey restaurants and galleries of the city’s NuLu district. Here, old, rambling homes lie low and far apart, flanked by muddy trucks and utility vans built for hard labor.

Allen, whose friendly eyes and jet-black hair lend her a youthful air, has lived and worked in her white ranch house for 20 years. With the help of a volunteer assistant, Terry, a devoted grandmother raising two small girls, Allen provides licensed care to 12 children at a time in colorful, adjacent rooms. Like so many child care providers, she also ministers to parents: offering discipline tips, accommodating work schedules (no extra charge for early drop-off or late pickup), and forgiving fees during bouts of unemployment. “They pay me in other ways,” she says, motioning to a newly retiled floor and wall-mounted television installed by a grateful father and grandfather.

Her sympathy is, in fact, empathy: As a child, Allen spent a year in an orphanage, when her mother despaired of finding help while working the graveyard shift at a restaurant. “Since I was in the orphanage, I thought it would be nice to take someone home with me for the holiday, but I didn’t know how to do that,” she says. Day care became her way.

The families she serves hover around the poverty line. This has long been Mike Newman’s predicament, though he isn’t a traditional parent. Newman, who has custody of his daughter’s four young children, all of them enrolled at Donna’s Daycare, earned $23,000 last year as a construction worker. A coarse-bearded, motorcycle-riding tough in a fluorescent work vest and sweat-soaked bandana, Newman has raised one of his grandkids since the boy was just two days old. “Miss Donna’s the only one I leave him with,” says Newman. “The ABCs, the songs, the writing — she’s taught every one of mine.”

Allen’s assistant Terry, who declined to use her full name, has also struggled to support an unexpectedly large household. In 2010 and 2011, she took custody of one, then another, baby granddaughter born into drug addiction, cognitive delays and asthma. Now, at the age of a typical retiree, with a graying ponytail and lined visage, Terry parents full-time, taking the girls to school and day care and all their health appointments, while volunteering with Allen and chasing freelance massage-therapy jobs.

These days, Terry, Newman and tens of thousands of other low-income Kentuckians feel under attack. Subsidies for child care and kinship care, the two state programs most central to their lives, which allow them to parent and prevent their fragile work routines from collapsing, were all but eliminated from this year’s budget. Earlier this week, families rallied in Frankfort, the state capital, to protest the cuts.

With few exceptions, no new families will receive public child care subsidies, and current recipients will be cut from the program if they earn more than 100 percent of the federal poverty level ($19,000 per year for a three-person household, the lowest eligibility rate of any state). And no additional families will get kinship care, an innovative monthly subsidy that encourages relatives to take custody of orphaned, abused and neglected kids — at less than half the cost of a foster care placement. For now, families who had kinship care before the April 1, 2013, cutback will remain on the program, but its future is uncertain.

The families at Donna’s Daycare attribute the cuts to a reaction against recent, notorious cases of fraud by child care providers and a clampdown on child welfare programs stemming from Kentucky’s infamously high child fatality rates. According to the state, the reductions are due to unsustainable demand for child and kinship care and a massive budget shortfall: $86.6 million for the Department of Community Based Services (DCBS), the agency overseeing these anti-poverty initiatives.

Teresa James, commissioner of DCBS, says the cuts are regrettable and mean that children will be left home alone, parents forced to quit work and more kids placed in foster care. “I would never take those risks had I had dollars to invest in the lives of these families,” she says.

Stimulus funds gone

Until recently, low-income children and families across America were given a boost by the 2009 federal stimulus package, which directed $2 billion to early care and education. That spending has all but disappeared, however, leading to furloughs, pay freezes and layoffs of state workers. The ongoing federal sequester has further worn down safety-net programs — including Head Start, free preschool for poor children — funded by the federal government but administered locally.

Bourbon wealth and racetracks aside, Kentucky is not a rich state. The median household income is around $42,000 per year, $10,000 below the US median. Eighteen percent of its 4.4 million residents live below the poverty line, as compared to 14 percent nationwide. Yet, even as the state cut $1.6 billion from its budget over the past five years, it has tried to meet the basic needs of poor children, through cash assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, child care subsidies and a child welfare system focused on family preservation.

Thanks in part to the stimulus, Kentucky had maintained a nationally competitive public child care system, providing subsidies to households at or below 150 percent of the 2009 federal poverty level ($27,795 for a family of three). In 2012, these subsidies helped 75,727 kids.

The state had also offered a kinship care allowance to grandparents and other relatives taking in orphaned, abused or neglected children. Some 12,000 of these caregivers receive $300 per month per child to defray parenting costs; the average foster care placement costs between $600 and $2,000. (Approximately 63,000, or 6 percent of Kentucky kids, live with non-parent relatives, among the nation’s highest rates; only a handful of states provide subsidies to kin.)

Child care advocates say the $87 million in cuts could have been avoided if the state prioritized the agency’s programs and raised taxes. They also bemoan the fact that reducing the agency’s budget means sacrificing federal matching funds from child care and welfare block grants. “It could have been done in a more gentle manner that wouldn’t have caused so many parents so much pain,” says Susan Vessels, executive director of Community Coordinated Child Care (4Cs), a nonprofit child-advocacy group.

Democratic governor Steven Beshear has called for modest proposals to raise revenue and extend benefits, including the earned income tax credit put forward by progressive groups. But large-scale, revenue-generating measures seem unlikely in this red state, where even struggling parents are quick to blame welfare cheats and reluctant to call for tax hikes. In America today, hardly anyone feels entitled to entitlement programs.

Working poor

Louisville’s Jefferson County Family Court, like most such courts in the U.S., adjudicates the lives of the poor. In late June, on the fifth floor of the downtown courthouse, dozens of white and African-American families were perched nervously on gray, vinyl seats, air-conditioned sunlight streaming through the waiting area. Outside the courtrooms, which are closed to the public, attorney-client pairs and clustered relatives sought out corners and less-attended walls to discuss their cases — of child custody and alleged abuse or neglect. One lawyer, far too familiar with his client, said loudly, “Your ass is going to get beat, and it’s your fault, genius.” Then the two men broke into laughter, before they could fight or cry.

Since joining the family court bench in 1995, Judge Patricia Walker Fitzgerald has witnessed a progressive decline in benefits available to poor families. Years ago, before the recession, she would order drug counseling, parenting classes and even transportation vouchers for parents facing poverty-related neglect allegations. When reunification was ruled out but a grandparent could take the child, she would order a monthly kinship care grant and child care subsidies — vastly cheaper and more effective than a foster care placement. []

Read the rest of E. Tammy Kim’s investigation.

This article originally appeared at Al Jazeera America and is posted here with permission.